Edith Wharton is best known for The Age of Innocence and other novels and novellas, but she was also the author of short stories, including a collection of ghostly tales. I was first introduced to this one at Victorian Horrors, the annual Halloween tour at the Molly Brown House. Pausing in one room, then another, actors perform a variety of haunting tales in the candlelit house. I’ve heard many spooky tales there over the years, but this one has always been my favorite. It’s not often you have light-hearted humor intertwined with the horror. As this may still be under copyright, I cannot post the entire thing, so it will be up to you to find out how the tale ends.
The white figure flitted spectrally to the chimney piece, lit two more candles, and set down the third on a table. I hadn’t supposed I was superstitious – but those three candles! Hardly knowing what I did, I hurriedly bent and blew one out. Her laugh sounded behind me.
“Three candles – you still mind that sort of thing? I’ve got beyond all that, you know,” she chuckled. “Such a comfort…such a sense of freedom…” A fresh shiver joined the others already coursing over me.
“Come and sit down by me, ” she entreated, sinking to a sofa. “It’s such an age since I’ve seen a living being!”
Her choice of terms was certainly strange, and as she leaned back on the white slippery sofa and beckoned me with one of those unburied hands my impulse was to turn and run. But her old face, hovering there in the candlelight, with the unnaturally red cheeks like varnished apples and the blue eyes swimming in vague kindliness, seems to appeal to me against my cowardice, to remind me that, dead or alive, Mary Pask would never harm a fly.
“Do sit down!” she repeated, and I took the other corner of the sofa.
“It’s so wonderfully good of you – I suppose Grace asked you to come?” She laughed again – her conversation had always been punctuated by rambling laughter. “It’s an event – quite an event! I’ve had so few visitors since my death, you see.”
Another bucketful of cold water ran over me; but I looked at her resolutely, and again the innocence of her face disarmed me.
I cleared my throat and spoke – with a huge panting effort, as if I had been heaving up a gravestone. “You live here alone?” I brought out.
“Ah, I’m glad to hear your voice – I still remember voices, though I hear so few,” she murmured dreamily. “Yes – I live here alone. The old woman you saw goes away at night. She won’t stay after dark…she says she can’t. Isn’t it funny? But it doesn’t matter; I like the darkness.” She leaned to me with one of her irrelevant smiles. “The dead,” she said, “naturally get used to it.”